• Taking Flight

    The first female launch director at NASA, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson ’88 has gotten there with a dream, hard work and passion.

    By Nancy Spitler
    Photography by Danielle Noonan

Every NASA launch director has their own launch traditions. Certain things they do on launch day, things they wear, good luck items they make sure to get into a pocket. 

Charlie Blackwell-Thompson ’88 always wears her Clemson lanyard. She wears it both out of pride for her school and because there are often photographers in the area — it is a shout out of sorts. Her pockets are also packed with tangible reminders of her three kids, two sons and a daughter.

“I love my job,” she says. “I feel honored to be a part of this team. And I love my family. Having that very tangible thing I can touch in my pocket on this pretty spectacular day is a way of having them be a part of it.”

Some of those lucky treasures have changed over the years as her kids have made her special items. “We have a sequence called pad closeout, when you’re getting all the work done at the pad, backing out, getting ready for tanking. It’s very hectic,” she says. “You’re very constrained by weather.” One year, during that time, Blackwell-Thompson had been watching the weather and was concerned. The forecast was bad.

“My daughter, who was about 3 or 4 years old, had a little plastic bubble gum machine ring with an umbrella on it. She gave it to me and said, ‘Maybe it will keep the rain away.’”

Blackwell-Thompson went in that night and instead of the bad weather that had been forecast, the skies cleared, and everything went smoothly.

The ring became a permanent fixture for launch day. “There’s not a shuttle launch countdown from return to flight ‘til the end of the program that I didn’t have that little plastic ring on my pinkie finger,” she says. On various launches, she has packed away a lucky coin, a pin made out of wire soldered together that spells out “Mom,” a note that says “good luck.”

Charlie Blackwell-Thompson at a Clemson home game with her children, Matt, Lhotse and Cody.

By the next launch in 2019, the kids will range from ages 19 to 26. Matt is a mechanical engineer in South Florida, Cody is pre-med at the University of Florida and Lhotse is a senior in high school, trying to figure out where she’s headed to college.  “I’m wondering if they’re going to give me anything new for my pockets, or if I’ll just be taking the old stuff,” she says.

That little plastic ring is proven, however, and it will be on her pinkie finger. “I have it put away for safekeeping,” she says.

TWO PACKED DAYS

It’s two years until the launch of Exploration Mission 1, but Blackwell-Thompson is busier now than she’s ever been in her career. This mission is the first test flight of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, which will set the stage and test the components for sending astronauts to Mars. It’s the most powerful rocket NASA has ever developed, and according to Blackwell-Thompson, “has the capability to take us to deep space, wherever our country might decide to go, whether that’s the moon, Mars or some place entirely different.”

“This first mission is about testing out the capabilities,” she says, “to make sure everything works the way it’s supposed to, so that when we get ready to fly a crew a few years down the road, we’ll be ready to go.”

In the development stage leading up to that launch, Blackwell-Thompson and her team are building new ground equipment and new flight hardware, and making sure it works together. They’re putting “an amazing rocket” together and making sure it’s ready to fly. “There’s a tremendous amount of work in doing that,” she says. “It’s a more brisk pace than I had when  we were flying during the shuttle program, and I thought I was really busy then.”

There’s also the coordination of developing different components in three different locations. The flight hardware for the heavy lift rocket is being developed out of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Orion, the crew module, is being developed out of Johnson Space Center in Houston. And the hardware and various components are manufactured all across the country.

“For me as launch director,” says Blackwell-Thompson, “I’m also trying to look at how I build this launch team. We have a lot of expertise on the team that worked on the shuttle program, but this is a brand new rocket with brand new ground systems. You have to figure out how to get this team ready to go fly this rocket and make sure they have the expertise they need.”

“There’s a lot that goes into the two days
of launch countdown.”

She begins to tick off some of the many parts of the process: “There is what goes into the launch itself — what does the launch countdown look like, how long is it, what’s the work we need to do, how do we verify it’s ready to fly.” Then there are the launch commit criteria to develop, the set of rules that govern whether or not you’re ready to fly on launch day, and developing launch countdown procedures and timelines.

“Then you have to go practice it,” she says, “and make sure you’re ready for anything that the vehicle might throw at you in a given day. You want to make sure you’ve simulated the
potential problems, and that you run through those anomalies and you know how you’re going to respond to them.”

And then there are launch capabilities: fuel requirements for multiple launch attempts within a given window, imagery of the vehicle that is needed during cryogenic propellant loading and prior to launch, communication across the multitude of NASA centers on launch day, command and control system capabilities to send time-critical commands to the vehicle to get data back to make split-second calls when the countdown clock is moving.

She breathes. “There’s a lot that goes into the two days of launch countdown.”

Charlie Blackwell-Thompson coordinating launch procedures.

Thompson on launch day

EVERY LAUNCH COUNTDOWN

There are small moments in all of our lives that we look back on and realize were much more significant than we ever imagined. For Blackwell-Thompson, it was a class at Clemson called Software Engineering, taught by Professor James Leathrum. A course dreaded by many because it was so difficult, it ignited Blackwell-Thompson’s mind and imagination and set her on the path to become the first female launch director at NASA.

It was both the topic, she says, and the way Leathrum taught. “He was a phenomenal teacher,” she says, “a very data-driven, methodical teacher who kind of just walked you through the process. That was a great way for me to learn.”

So when she began interviewing for a job, and they asked her what she wanted to do, she responded that she was really interested in software verification and validation.

Turns out the folks at Kennedy Space Center were looking for someone to do just that.

Blackwell-Thompson’s first job was at Kennedy Space Center, working with McDonnell Douglas as a contractor. She was hired to do software validation and verification, although the methods varied from what she had learned in class. She tested payload software (the payload is the cargo that the shuttle carried into space) and made sure that it worked well with the orbiter flight software on board the shuttle.

She branched out a bit after that, working avionics systems for payloads including the Hubble Telescope, then serving as lead electrical integration engineer, responsible for all the electrical and software integration of a particular payload. In 2004, she moved over from the contractor workforce to work directly for NASA in the test director’s office. Test directors are in charge of executing the launch countdown on behalf of the launch director, so they are the voices you hear on launch day, kicking off various steps of the launch. She became a certified test director, responsible for loading the cryogenic propellant into the external tank during a countdown and then became a certified launch test director, the only woman certified into that position during the space shuttle program.

After several launches, she moved into the position as chief NASA test director, where she stayed until the end of the program in 2011. When the shuttle program ended, she transitioned to the Ground Systems Development and Operations program before being selected as the launch director in 2016.

Despite the different roles, she’s been working in the firing room since 1988, a place that feels like home for her. “I say with a lot of pride that I worked a number of missions from 1988 until 2004 — dozens,” she says, “but I am very proud of the fact that from our return to flight after the Columbia accident until the end of the shuttle program, I worked every launch countdown.”

“I am also struck with admiration and appreciation for the women
who came before me blazing a trail …”

A MESSAGE FOR YOUNG WOMEN

When you ask Blackwell-Thompson what it feels like to be the first female launch director at NASA, she hesitates. “I get that question a lot,” she says. “And it’s always a tough one for me.”

She pauses and continues. “I really feel blessed to have the opportunity to lead this team. I know I’m the first woman to have this job for NASA — that’s a factual thing.  But when I think of myself, I am Matt, Cody and Lhotse’s mom; that’s the first thing to come to mind. I am also struck with admiration and appreciation for the women who came before me blazing a trail, who have left their mark on this industry and inspired others.  When it comes to being the launch director, I want to be the best that I can be. I want to help set the stage for something that lasts a long time.”

Jeremy Graeber, who has worked with Blackwell-Thompson since 2004, agrees with her self-assessment. “We just get the job done — figure out the challenges, get the right people together and get things done,” he says. “That’s how I see her.”

Graeber and Blackwell-Thompson started in the NASA test director’s office within a month or two of each other, working in different aspects of the space shuttle program, and have moved up the ranks together. “I’ve been her right-hand man for the last seven years,” he says.

However, he’s the father of two daughters and says that “when I step back and look at how lucky I’ve been to work with such a strong individual that just happens to be a woman, and that she’s had the opportunity and has been clearly the right person to be in that job — for her to be a role model and an example for my daughters is just amazing.”

Even though it’s not something she thinks about a lot, Blackwell-Thompson clearly understands the significance of being the first woman. It’s a situation she’s familiar with, having been the only woman at the time in the NASA test director’s office. She was the only woman certified as a launch NASA test director during the space shuttle program. She was only woman to ever hold the position of chief NASA test director.

“I want my daughter and all young ladies to know that they can do anything they want,” she says. “Their potential is not limited. If me being the first woman launch director sends that message to young women across the country, that’s a fabulous thing, because they can do anything they can dream and plan toward. I’m kind of proof of that.”

LEADING FROM THE HEART

Dreaming and planning coupled with dedication and hard work was modeled for Blackwell-Thompson by her parents and grandparents when she was growing up in rural South Carolina. “They worked, and they farmed, and they provided food and livestock from their own land. I don’t know if I appreciated it as much at the time, but it was something that was instilled in me from an early age — a strong work ethic and dedication.”

And that’s what she wants to pass on, both to her kids and to the young women she mentors. “It all starts with a dream. You’ve got to be willing to dream and be willing to say, ‘This is what I want.’ But you have to put work with it, or it’s just a dream. When you have a dream and you’re willing to work for it, then it becomes a plan. And plans are implementable.”

Finding your passion is the other lesson she wants to pass on. “That will take you far,” she says. “It will take you past challenges that you come across. When you love what you do, it doesn’t really feel like work.”

It’s clear that Blackwell-Thompson has found her passion, and she shares that passion on a daily basis. Her boss, Mike Bolger, program manager for Ground Systems Development and Operations, says that he is amazed that she finds time for all that is involved in being launch director while also mentoring many female engineers at Kennedy as well as students in the local area. “She has personally inspired young women to pursue careers at NASA by telling her story and making them realize that engineering careers are open to women and are within reach,” he says.

Bolger says she initially comes across as laid-back, “but the reality is that she is a hard driving, passionate, NASA leader who gets things done,” and says she “didn’t get to be NASA’s first female launch director for human spaceflight by accident. She came up through the ranks proving herself as technically expert, a person who meets commitments, a leader who is a natural team builder.”

That leadership and team building is crucial as she works toward the launch of Exploration Mission 1. “People want to follow her,” says Graeber. “Charlie is able to galvanize people together — not just on a technical and engineering operations basis, but from the heart. She knows how to pull every bit of resources and best effort out of everybody, not because she’s driving them to do it, but people want to go down the path she’s laid out, because she’s inspired them, and she does that so well.”

Her pride is evident when she talks about the team she leads. “Over the course of the shuttle program, more times than I can count, I have watched this team do amazing work and accomplish things that are very challenging, that maybe on paper, you’d look and say, ‘This can’t be done.’ But when you put the creative minds and the passion behind it, amazing things happen.

“To lead this team for this inaugural flight, I just feel blessed. That’s the word that comes to mind first. It’s a privilege. It’s an honor to have that responsibility and to be given that opportunity.”

“When you have a dream and you’re willing to work for it,
then it becomes a plan … plans are implementable.”

A DETERMINING COURSE

“When I look at the job I do today,” says Blackwell-Thompson, “part of it is based on that technical foundation I got when I was in school. But there’s an equal part based on how you talk and communicate, the teams you form, the relationships — the softer side of leadership.”

She’s quick to credit her upbringing and her parents for that preparation, but also those team projects in engineering at Clemson, “where you had to learn to divide and conquer the work and come together as a team and then present it. It didn’t matter if you had a superstar in your group, it was really about the work as a whole and how you had to come together as a team to get it done.”

That part of her education, says Blackwell-Thompson, is just as much if not more in line with what she does today. “I feel like I came out as prepared as I could possibly be. I look back, and I am really glad that I had the opportunity to go to school at Clemson.”

But it was that class, that single class, and that one professor, that really changed her life and set her on the path that she chose. “I’m not sure at the time I knew how influential he was or how this one thing would change the course of my career,” she says.

“I don’t exactly do software testing today. But if it hadn’t been for that class, and even the method and style Dr. Leathrum taught it — it really opened up a door to where I am today. If that hadn’t been available, and I hadn’t ended up at Kennedy Space Center, I certainly wouldn’t have ended up the launch director.”

“To lead this team for this inaugural flight, I just feel blessed. That’s the word that comes to mind first. It’s a privilege. It’s an honor to have that responsibility and to be given that opportunity.”

In NASA’s video, Daisy Ridley of Star Wars fame introduces us to Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, Space Launch System/Orion Launch Director.

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